KIEV (Reuters) - With days to go before Euro 2012 starts, Kiev should be preparing for a festival of football but the Fan Zone in the city centre, set to welcome fans from across the continent, has become a magnet for protest and dissent.
On one side of Khreshchatyk boulevard, a short walk from the Olympic stadium and the heart of the pedestrianized zone where fans will gather to watch matches on giant screens, the Ukrainian flag lies draped over a row of white tents.
This is not a show of support for Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko and his team mates as the country prepares to co-host the showpiece.
The flag and tents are part of a protest in support of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and one of a number of actions that have threatened to turn the tournament into a political football and embarrass Ukraine’s government.
Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years in the eastern city of Kharkiv last October for abuse of power while serving as prime minister. She denies the charge and says she is the victim of a political vendetta by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovich.
The European Union and the United States have denounced Tymoshenko’s trial and sentence, urging Yanukovich to free her.
On Tuesday, another political cause took centre stage in the Fan Zone, as protestors clashed with police over a parliamentary vote that would increase the role of the Russian language in the country.
The crowd trampled official UEFA boards underfoot as they tried to march into Independence Square to protest at the decision.
“Since they were not allowed to set up a tent protest near the parliament, the majority of protesters decided to occupy the fan zone on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square),” said Ruslan Sekela, an activist for a nationalist pressure group, Nastup.
Yet to make an appearance in the Fan Zone are the topless feminist flash-mobs of the Femen women’s rights group.
The Kiev-based Femen says Euro 2012, which will run in Ukraine from June 9 to July 1, will lead to a surge in prostitution in the former Soviet republic and entrench the country as a sex tourist destination in Europe.
“Euro 2012 will not help Ukraine develop. The only thing that will develop is the sex industry here. Euro 2012 will help make Ukraine one big Euro brothel,” activist Sasha Shevchenko told Reuters in a recent interview.
Given that their office is a stone’s throw from Independence Square, it is likely that they will choose to protest in the Fan Zone at some point.
Instead of Andriy Shevchenko removing his shirt to celebrate a goal, the world may see his namesake Sasha Shevchenko remove her shirt to protest against the sex industry.
“We are going to do everything we can to interrupt and disrupt, to break up these (Euro) events,” Femen spokeswoman Anna Hutsol told Reuters.
There is a large uniformed police presence on the streets of the Ukraine’s capital, and activists supporting Tymoshenko are worried that they will be moved on before the tournament kicks off on Friday.
Asked if the police would allow their tents to remain in the Fan Zone for the duration of the tournament, one man shook his head.
“No, no. (But) you never know.”
Editing by Justin Palmer